A couple of weeks back I had the honour of talking to writer and producer Robert Hewitt Wolfe who recently wrote the screenplay for Syfy Channel’s mini-series adaptation of the popular Philip José Farmer Riverworld books.
As many will know a television movie adaptation of Riverworld was done in 2003, and wasn’t at all well received. Which is something that writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe took note of when approaching the material as a freelance script writer for Syfy Channel…
When asked about Riverworld Wolfe was fast to correct me on the fact that he is not producing, but only wrote the script as a freelancer, which is something he’s only ever done once before throughout his career. This said the writer was more than happy to talk about the project, and was rather enthused by the fact that he will get to see the show at the same time as Joe public.
“I’ve literally only seen the trailer, and from what have seen its looking good. I’ve not been on set, and as far as I’m aware there’s only been a little bit of rewriting, which is something that inevitably happens anyway. It’s an unusual situation for me. As I said have only ever done it once before, because usually I’m very involved with the production of stuff that I write. So it will be interesting for me to see how it turns out.
“I think its going to be good you know. I think Tahmoh Penikett going to be terrific and I think director Stuart Gillard has got some great visuals from what I can see on the limited amount of footage I’ve seen. It looks great. So I’m hopeful. Fingers crossed.”
When it comes to how close Wolfe sourced the books. The writer revealed that he was a huge fan of the book series, and tried to include as much from the original source material as he could, but did have to take a few liberties in order to make it work for television.
“Samuel Clemens is a major character in the mini series and he’s in the trailer. So if he’s in the trailer I suspect they’ve kept a lot of the stuff I wrote for him in the mini series. Sir Richard Burton is part of the mini series, but he is somewhat of a departure from the novels. I think there are some central characters and incidents and moments that fans of the books will enjoy, but I think it’s more of a tale set on a Riverworld much like what Farmer wrote.
“Once you get into writing the nuts and bolts for television there are certain things you can do and can’t do. For example, in the mini series no one comes out of the water naked. At least from the previews I saw. They’re not walking around naked for the first hour of that mini series. When I wrote it. They came out of the water and awoke naked and rapidly put clothes on.
“In the preview it looks to me like they come out of the water already dressed. Which makes sense! I mean look if someone can make a world in its entirety from scratch. They can certainly make clothing,” laughs Wolfe. “Though I understand again that everyone has hair, and no ones coming out of the river bald. So they’ve obviously taken liberties. I took some liberties, and again the production took some liberties.
“Which isn’t necessarily to the detriment of the show! There have been some terrific adaptations of other material, which had perhaps only been marginally faithful to its source books. I mean look at Blade Runner or even the first X-Men movie. They did not do Iron Man as a period piece set in Vietnam.
“It’s difficult for example to sell a show that is at best obscure to American Audiences about a British explorer who has the same name as an incredibly famous actor as the lead character. That is just difficult to get to play.
“So the second you write fade in. Your compromising whatever the material your basing it on. One of the things I liked to say and have said this to film students often, and am not trying to be pretentious or funny, ‘Macbeth he was a good King. He ran for twenty years. People liked him.’ That’s the original source material. So from there you go where you go. You tell the story you want to tell. I don’t disrespect the books. I love the books. I read them when I was 12 years old when I was working in a science fiction book store. At high school I was huge fan of the books. So am a big fan, but there is still the realities or what you can and cannot do when you set out to do projects like this.
“People always point to Lord Of The Rings and say ‘Look that’s what you can do with a faithful adaptation. Yet that’s not a faithful adaptation. They took significant liberties in places. Not throughout but they did take liberties here and there. Plus they had 400 Million dollars to do it and three years and an entire country whose total economy was basically invested in the movie. On top of that. Whether you want to hear it or not everyone in the world at least knows something of Lord Of The Rings, whereas Riverworld while a wonderful series of books just doesn’t have the Harry Potter foot print or even the Twilight foot print. It’s a very cool series of books, but doesn’t have that same kind of public awareness.”
Riverworld will air next year on the Syfy Channel.
By Ian M. Cullen